Exploring reflections: a workshop

Reflections workshop

Inspired by the awesome Reflections show that is now on display at the Exploratorium, the Learning Studio offered a 3-hour workshop in which visitors built their own "Shiny, Sparkly, Something-or-Others," as the title said. This constituted an experiment for us in several ways, and a good first step into the kind of activities and interactions that we would like to start offering in the future. First of all, it happened in parallel with a current show on the museum floor, and that alone allowed for adjacencies that were a source of inspiration for us, in developing the activity, and hopefully for the participants to the workshop, in coming up with their own creative ideas. We also combined the workshop with an unusual two-week residency for artist Chris Bell, who had collaborated with us before. We thought he would be a great source of inspiration because of his previous work with lights and reflections off of common household objects, and proposed to him that he would be building and experimenting with an installation on the museum floor, right next to a gallery showcasing similar work by participants to our own workshop. Graciously, and it take a particularly selfless and generous artist to allow this, he accepted, and a great collaborations resulted once again. So, this workshop started in the Learning Studio with a brief introduction to what we were going to do: essentially explore some of the aesthetic qualities of lights and reflections, and create our own expression of that.

Chris meets the participants

Then we led the group onto the museum floor to have a chat with Chris, while he was starting to work on his installation. This was a great moment in which Chris introduced himself and his work as an artist, and had some very insightful words on his process of creation with such an ethereal medium, with a particular emphasis on knowing "when to stop," which I think had a great and positive influence on the visitors' work.

initial explorations

Then it was time to head back to the LS for an initial exploration, using just a light source and a simple sheet of Mylar, in order to start generating ideas, and to familiarize ourselves with what was possible and beautiful with this medium. After a while, we introduced, as usual, a host of different materials, all somehow reflective or translucent, as well as construction materials, wood, tape, motors, switches, etc.

Similar initial explorations led to different end results

The mood became very quiet and meditative, and the visitors got to work, and soon different avenues of thought took shape. I found it very interesting that often similar initial explorations led to very different end results. Likewise, as is often the case with our activities, the participants ranged both in age (from about 12 to older adults) and gender, and all seemed to be equally engaged in the activity.

Taking our pieces to the wall of Light
The final incarnation of the Wall of Light

Ideas were tried and discarded, problems were solved, and slowly each participant got to the point were they were satisfied with what they had built. At this point we took their creations, which were on independent "shelves", and took them on the museum floor, where they became part of a collective Wall of Light, which stood on display for all museum visitors to see and appreciate for an amazing full two weeks.

And that concluded the first part of our exploration with light and with different kinds of interactions with the public. In the next days I will talk more about our next steps, which led to some interesting events!


Maker Faire 2009 time-lapse

Well, now that it's over, it's time to reflect on what an amazing ride Maker Faire was this year.

We organized a 3,600 square feet booth, including exhibits, snack activities, demonstrations, prototypes, and two PIE activities: a giant marble machines fort, and an even bigger enclosure where we let visitors build their portion of a collective chain reaction machine.

Photos from the event are coming soon. In the mean time, enjoy these frantic movies: they are two time-lapse movies, each compressing a full day of chain reaction workshop in less than a minute. You will notice the ebb and flow of visitors, and twice during each movie, the crowd building up to watch us set off the whole reaction, and then us taking it all down and starting again. It makes me tired and happy just looking at it!

Day 1:

Day 2:

The big set-offs were web-cast live on Saturday! You can see the archived versions here:


Bowling ball launcher

In the midst of preparations for Maker Faire's chain reaction collective build, we've been tinkering with various ways of having a grandiose finale to the whole shebang, one that would pack a lot of impact, while still being faithful to the materials and aesthetic of the rest of the activity (cardboard, paper, home-made contraptions, household items, etc.). After several ideas and prototypes, we settled on an awesome ping-pong ball launcher, powered by a falling bowling ball. This short video documents some of our prototyping process, as well as the fun we have while developing ideas!


Laser Cutting Experiments

Laser cutting

In the last couple of weeks, I have spent many evenings playing around with our new laser cutter in the learning studio. So far I have not started any big projects, but just enjoyed the opportunity to work with such different materials on the same machine. It's astonishing how the cutter can produce acrylic gears, colorful fabric designs, etchings in a mirror surface, fragile paper ornaments, or wood cut-outs (more in this Sample Gallery).

The image to the left shows quick 10 minute clip art designs we used to test materials, below is an example of a bigger project by Kristina Larsen. She just started  to use the laser cutter with Adobe Illustrator for her artwork.

"I've been wanting to do something with this design for a long time. The black felt is made of polyester and the rest is a slightly thinner rayon/wool blend. The non-synthetic felt looks and feels much nicer, so I plan to swap out the black with the good stuff in dark brown. Once it's all together I'll attach it to a backing material, probably fabric.

I find the process of fitting the pieces together immensely satisfying, like working on a squishy jigsaw puzzle. I'm also happy with the combination of precision cuts and organic lines, and that I've managed to use computer and laser cutter to make something warm and handmade feeling."

Felt mosaic


Shih Chieh Huang's "Organic concept" installation

Visiting artist Shih Chieh Haung ("CJ") spent last week here at the Exploratorium, researching possible collaborations, sharing his wonderful work with the staff, and generally having a good time. On his last day, we convinced him to make one of his "organic concept" installations on the museum floor. These are incredibly evocative and fun, but the execution is surprisingly simple!

All we needed to make it happen were a box fan, some painter's tarp (which is a really thin, long sheet of plastic), and a couple of bungee cords. One end of the tarp roll gets secured over the box fan, then the fan is turned on, and the ends of the tarp are knotted together at regular intervals. The organic shape that results was an amazing draw, and it came together in less than 20 minutes! Of course visitors (especially children) attacked it immediately, but it was also really nice to see the Exploratorium staff come out of their hiding holes and start playing with it as well.

Another great advantage of this construction is the the inevitable holes and ruptures that happen can be immediately repaired by simply tying another knot! So, what we thought would last only a few minutes, ended up providing a couple of hours of solid enjoyment and wonder to many people.